December 6, 2010
Rene Soetaert and Colleen Soetaert star in The Park Bench.

WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER

Rene Soetaert and Colleen Soetaert star in The Park Bench.

CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

VILLENEUVE — Following the success of her two previous musical productions, Sandra Brenneis, a Villeneuve-based composer and playwright, decided to write a third.

Brenneis’ sister, Colleen Soetaert, is the chairperson for the West Sturgeon Aging in Place Foundation. In 2001, Soetaert recognized the need for an assisted living facility for area seniors. Since Brenneis had written a few songs for celebrations at St. Peter’s Parish in Villeneuve, she suggested hosting a musical production to generate seed money for such a facility.

The result was a musical production Mary’s Veil, which recounts the life of the mother of Jesus through a narrated musical of 23 numbers. Mary’s Veil sold out 23 consecutive performances at the Arden Theatre in St. Albert.

“It turned out to be more than I ever expected. I just thought it would be a nice fundraising opportunity, and we’ll get some family and friends out to support us and bring awareness to our cause. But it really had a life of its own,” said Brenneis.

Motivated by her music’s unanticipated impact, she wrote a second musical, Lost Apostle, which opened in 2005.

Through her two plays and CD sales, about $360,000 has been raised over the years. All of the money has gone to West Country Hearth, an assisted living complex for seniors, located west of Villeneuve. It has 52 units in four wings, two respite rooms and 12 dementia units.

Now, given the success of her two plays, Brenneis wrote a third musical, The Park Bench. She described the play as light, but dealing with serious themes.

Among music she has filed away in her drawer is a song called I’ll Know You by Heart, which is featured in the new play. It came to her about five years ago when she was a volunteer member of the cleaning crew at Harmony Haven, the dementia unit at West Country Hearth.

She was convinced that those with dementia may lose their memories of their physical world and relationships, but in some emotional and spiritual place, they always know loved ones.

Her play is about how people, even during difficult times, can choose strength, hope, resilience and reliance on their faith in people around them.

“It’s based basically on a bench in a park. The people who pass by the bench sing of the stories of their lives, and some of those stories are connected, and some of those stories as witnessed by characters have impact,” said Brenneis.

“Overall, the point of the play happens when we have two characters sing about the way they deal with dementia.”

Including musicians, about 30 volunteers are involved in the production. The youngest is 14, the oldest in his 60s.

“It really is a family type of show and there is something in it for everybody because the characters of the show are a cross-section. We have stories of young people, and stories of people getting on in years,” said Brenneis.

An impetus for the new play is the hope of expanding Harmony Haven to help meet the growing demand.

Her annual plays have become West Sturgeon Aging in Place Foundation’s biggest fundraiser, to the point where West Country Hearth would struggle financially if a play were not performed.

“With changes in health services and community funding, and with the recession, rising heat costs, operating costs increasing, it’s a real challenge.”

West Sturgeon Aging in Place Foundation has applied for $1 million in grants and will need to fundraise another $1 million. Profits from this musical will support that effort. With four February performances of The Park Bench, her goal is to generate $20,000 to $30,000.

LOVING CHANGE

Brenneis has a strong conviction that everybody is called to bring about loving change in the world.

“I believe that whether it’s big-scale things or small-scale things, every act we do creates change. One of the last lines in my play is, ‘Remember, if you are smiling at a stranger or yelling at a loved one — you’re changing the world.’

“If we are aware of what we’re doing and if we purposely seek positive change, then every action should be driven by that.”

Brenneis is a registered psychologist, composer, playwright, wife and mother of four children. She now works as a system psychologist for Sturgeon School Division, and has a private practice.

The Park Bench is set for Feb. 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 6 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. General admission is $20. Tickets are available at the Arden Theatre (780-459-1542) or Ticketmaster.